Art Alexakis: ‘Just Like Billy Corgan Is Smashing Pumpkins, I am Everclear’
Everclear frontman Art Alexakis is the sort of guy you either love or hate, but it's hard not to love how little he cares either way.
He rose to fame around 1995 when the band he formed four years earlier released their second album and major label breakthrough, Sparkle & Fade. While the upbeat but dark hit, "Santa Monica," put the band on the map, those who stuck around for more were treated to songs like "You Make Me Feel Like a Whore" – which is pretty indicative of Alexakis' playful but brutally blunt approach.
After releasing their best-selling album, 1997's So Much for the Afterglow, the trio released three more records before longtime members Craig Montoya and Greg Eklund parted ways with Alexakis in 2003. But that didn't stop the singer-songwriter. Since 2004, he's enlisted nearly a dozen different musicans to play with and released three more albums under the Everclear name including Black is the New Black, released in April.
Alexakis also founded the Summerland Tour in 2012 – featuring a handful of likeminded rock acts from the '90s. In addition to Everclear, this year's lineup includes Fuel, American Hi-Fi and the Toadies. In this interview, Alexakis (now a 53 year-old husband and father) opens up about the underlying darkness of the new album and life as a survivor of the '90s major label system along with his brief and surprising performance of a tattoo artist in Reese Witherspoon's Wild. He doesn't pull any punches, but he doesn't expect anyone to pull any for him. Check out our exclusive conversation below:
So if there was a Mount Rushmore of radio rock from the mid-‘90s, your face would probably be carved into it.
Wow, I think you just opened up a wormhole somewhere. [Laughs] That’s f---ing awesome. I gotta tell that to my wife. She’s gonna roll her eyes at that one. [To his wife] He said … What did you say? Say it again.
If there was a Mount Rushmore of rock from the mid-‘90s …
[To his wife] He said, “If there was a Mount Rushmore of rock from the mid-‘90s, my face would be on it.” [Muffled talking in the background, then he returns.] She isn’t buying it. But thanks for saying it. That was awesome. I'm gonna use that.
No problem. So has anyone come up to you on the street and said, "Hey, aren't you that guy from Wild?"
[Laughs] No, but someone on a plane did go, “Weren’t you just in a movie?” And I go, “Yeah, I was just in a movie.” She said, “You’re really good. You’re going to get a lot of roles from that.” I go, “Eh, probably not so much” and she goes, “Well was that a big break for you?” and I go, “Not really. It was kind of a cameo.” She goes, “Well don’t you need to be famous to have a cameo?” and I go, “Yeah, I guess so. But, you know, I’m known more in the rock world.” So she says, “Oh, so you do rock music?” And she wasn’t even that old – she was probably younger than me! So I don’t know. I’m told I have a very recognizable face.
So she's obviously never been to the Summerland Tour. You created it a couple of years ago. What prompted that?
A couple of things. I thought there were a lot of people out there who wanted to hear these bands. For a while, I had people asking, “Why don't you guys tour?” and I would say, “Well, we do tour, but we do mostly one-offs because that's what we mostly get offered.” Then I just got the idea that if we could get four or five bands from the ‘90s together, it could be like the old alternative radio festivals where they would have, like, 10 bands and everyone would play a half an hour of their hits and maybe a couple of new songs, then get out of the way for the next band. That was the idea: four bands, three hours and an average ticket price of $25. Nobody's getting rich, but everybody's working. Promoters love it because, with that age group, they sell a lot of beer. (Laughs.) It wasn't this nefarious thing where I was like, “I'm gonna get rich!” I know a lot of the guys from bands in that era and all I can do is ask. Some are definitely into it, but I know some definitely just aren’t gonna do it.
Some people place a negative connotation on radio rock from the 90s. Do you think that era gets a bad rap?
I think people attach generalizations to just about everything and a lot of times, when it’s not something you necessarily agree with, it becomes a negative generalization. But liking stuff from the ‘90s is really about nostalgia, and I think a little bit of nostalgia is a healthy thing. To me, I'm playing music for people who like this music – all these bands are. These are people who still listen to this music. It's not like they haven't listened to these bands for years and now all they're listening to is Sia or whatever else is the flavor of the week.
Do trends factor in at all to the way you build the lineup each year?
To be honest, this year it skewed very "rock" because our new album is very rock. That's kind of what I wanted to hear, so it's a selfish thing. I wanted the Toadies on the tour from the beginning. They just couldn't do it before or didn't want to do it. But they're doing it now. Fuel are on it. I think they're great. American Hi-Fi are awesome. I'm pretty stoked with this year. I don't know how well it's going to go over, but I don't really care. It's selling well; better in some markets than last year. It's going to be a success and we'll probably do a fifth year.
The Toadies are one of the most underrated bands from that era.
Rubberneck was a f---ing amazing album. The single, "Possum Kingdom," is great, but "Backslider" and some of the other songs on there are just phenomenal. I put it in their contract that they have to play "Backslider" even though that wasn't a big hit. [Laughs]
Did you really?
Yeah, but they don't really have to.
How hands on are you with the tour? Are you dealing with the contracts and stuff?
Yeah, I have a standing edict with agents and managers and publicists that anything to do with Summerland – any correspondence or phone call – I want to be copied on it and I would like to know what the phone call is about. I'm extremely hands on. It's my thing. I own it outright. No one is going to give it the love and attention I'm going to give it because it's something I really enjoy. I introduce every band at the shows. It just has the feeling of an old school show. I like that feeling of that we're all in this together.
How is touring different now than it was in the '90s?
It always turns into middle-aged rock and roll summer camp. [Laughs] It's awesome. It's not all about chicks backstage now. It's about food. I was clean and sober even back then, but I was always chasing girls – all the guys were. Back then, a hot girl would walk by and, you know, we'd be on it. Now a hot girl walks by and we look, but then we look at each other and go, "Hey, did you have the brisket at lunch? Was that a rub or a marinade? Was that slow roasted? Let's go talk to the cook and see how they did that." [Laughs] That's where we're at. You got guys doing yoga before shows instead of drinking Jack Daniels. You've got kids running around.
So, yeah, it's different but it's still very rock and roll. I love being on the side of the stage and enjoying the bands every night. That's exciting. That's rock and roll. I like bands that play without a net. What you see is what you get. I'm off-key a little bit? Oh well, that's rock and roll.
Do you ever forget the words to "Santa Monica"?
Yeah, all the time. [Laughs] I've written 300 songs. Of course. I forget the words to everything. I'm old. But I forgot them when I was younger too.
Could be worse.
Definitely, but I did break my foot the other day walking through a f---ing door. I moved out of the way because a kid was going through and I hit the doorjam and tripped on the thing on the bottom and then fell down some stairs. I twisted my foot and it hurt real bad. Turns out I got a hairline fracture on it. It's not going to affect Summerland. I'll be fine. I might be limping or I might be playing in a boot. But it wouldn't be the first time. I'm a trooper. I'll be up there.
With the way that the industry has changed, are you glad y ou came up when you did? Or would you prefer being in your 20s and coming up today?
No, and no offense to anyone still in their 20s, but I wouldn't go back to my 20s for all the money in the f---ing world. Not for anything. I loved coming up when I did. I came up when money was shooting out of the ground. It was awesome. We didn't make much. I make more money for selling less records now than I did then. But I have to work much harder for it. I have to be very present on social media and PledgeMusic and all this stuff to make a living. But it's awesome. At the end of the day, it's my thing. I own my records. Black is the New Black is leased to the label for five years, then it comes back to me. That's how it should have been back then, but it wasn't. I'd love to have gotten [the rights for] Sparkle and Fade and Afterglow after five years. That would have been cool, but that wasn't the business. The labels own them forever.
Are you completely over the major label system?
The major label system is over itself. It's all but gone. There are only three major labels left. During the '90s, there were, like, 40. I think what we did on this record was the best model that I could find: we used PledgeMusic to fund it and put the record out on a really great, enthusiastic indie [The End Records] with major label distribution. We're still in Best Buy and Walmart and stuff like that but the presence is down. People are buying fewer CDs, but we're still putting out albums. The new album is even coming out on cassette. I don't know why people are buying cassettes, but they are. We sold like 400 or 500 of them, which is amazing because I didn't even know there are 500 cassette players still in America.
Everything comes back around.
Yeah, and one of the things that I like about cassettes and vinyl is that people have to focus on the album as opposed to just one song. It's really hard to hear just a single song on a cassette or on an album. You put it at the top and run it through. I still make albums – not individual singles. That's what I grew up doing. That's the way I think.
Speaking of the album, you're giving downloads to people to people who buy tickets to the tour, right?
In some places, I think it's with the VIP package, or if you purchase four tickets or something, you get a download.
Seems pretty smart if you've got a brand new album just coming out. It's almost like handing out a hymnal at church. Fans get the music ahead of time, then they know the words to sing along.
[Laughs] I didn't think about it like that! Yeah! It's like giving them a little songbook with the lyrics. Speaking of religion, there's a song on the album called "American Monster" where, in the middle, it's looking at pure evil. There's a line in it: "I'm in a meth lab on a residential street / I took all your money in a Ponzi scheme / I'm the neighborhood predator priest." I find that to be evil – just plain evil. These aren't crazy people. These are evil people doing evil acts. I wrote that song because I have a 7-year-old who is getting to the age where she's infatuated by scary things, but scared of them at the same time. I'm telling her, "Look, ghosts and goblins and vampires and werewolves don't exist in our world. People make them up. They're just stories." But at the same time, she still believes in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy and I still perpetuate those. There's a dichotomy there. There's a contradiction there. I figured, she's going to figure out the truth sooner or later, why not perpetuate the goodness for as long as possible?
It got me starting this dialog with her about what evil really is. There's nothing more evil than people. We created the word and the concept. Animals aren't evil. They eat each other because that's what they do to survive. It's not personal. It's not like they torture other animals or rape other animals. I'm sure that's happened in the wild, but it comes from a biological need. It doesn't come from the place human beings come from. Personally, and I'm speaking as a white person, I think white people have done the most evil things in this world – more than anybody. There's nothing more evil than white people. Think about it: Nazi Germany? Slavery? White people.
Although the record is dark, it seems like you're in a better place with yourself now than you used to be.
Definitely. That's the dichotomy of the record – I am in a really happy place. I've got two extremely happy, healthy kids. My wife and I are better than we've ever been. We've been together almost 11 years. I live in Pasadena, Calif., which is a great place to live. I have this great life but I write about dark things on this album – very dark things. I think part of it is the fact that I feel safe enough because my life is so good to go into the dark places. Trust me, the dark places are still there. They haven't gone anywhere, they're still there.
It's been 20 years since Sparkle and Fade was released. That's the equivalent of what Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti was in 1995. Are you comfortable with the concept of it being perceived as a "classic rock" album?
Wow, that's a great question. I was just thinking about that the other day: how would I have felt in 1996 or 1997 if a band from 1976 or 1977 came out with a contemporized record? I think it would be weird. If it was one of my favorite bands, I would still give it a chance. But I don't know what my perception would be of it. I like your analogy with Physical Graffiti, too. I try to do that exactly sometimes and think, "Okay, this person is 28. 20 years ago, they would have been 8. So when I was 8, what was going on then? What was my perspective then? What would I have thought of that perspective 20 years after that?" I'm old enough to still have those people still inside of me. The 8-year-old and the 28-year-old are still here.
How into Zeppelin were you?
Get the f--k out of here. I was so into Zeppelin. Listen to "Sugar Noise" on the new record much? Yeah, Jimmy Page was my God. He wrote and produced everything they did. Zeppelin was his vision. He did it his way, he plays guitar his way. It doesn't sound like anybody else and I think that's what I try to emulate. I don't write like anybody else or produce like anybody else. That's the kind of artist I like: the big-picture type of artist who just encapsulates everything.
That does sound like you and Everclear – the core of the band has always been you as a singer-songwriter surrounded by whoever is with you at the time.
That's what it is and thanks for picking up on that. Everclear has always been my project – just like Trent Reznor is Nine Inch Nails and Billy Corgan is Smashing Pumpkins, I am Everclear. It's the same thing. People are like, "Well, this isn't the original band" and I'm like, "Well, the 'original' band wasn't the original band, either. They were the third version of the band." They were just in the right place at the right time, so they were the ones in the videos. I think the guys I have now have more input into the music because I'm playing with better musicians now. I'm more grown-up and mature about things. But I still hold onto the aspect of how it's got to fit what I think is right. I'm more into having people being involved and putting their imprint on it. I'm not like what I was in my 30s where everything has to be exactly this. So it's all even more exciting to me.